Will Obama solve a foreign policy paradox?

US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc Annual Phoenix Awards 21 September 2013 Will this year's United Nations meeting vindicate or complicate Barack Obama's foreign policymaking?

It is not exactly veni vidi vici: "I came, I saw, I conquered."

Maybe instead: vacillate, vindicate, victory? President Barack Obama's foreign policy has looked sometimes incoherent, sometimes less than robust and that has come to a head in the last month.

But he could be on the path to vindication in New York this week. A combination of sanctions and the hand of friendship may have resulted in a conciliatory tone from Iran's new President, Hassan Rouhani.

Syria could be on the path to chemical weapons disarmament without an American shot being fired. Of course, there is lots that could still go wrong there.

While the peacemakers may be blessed, Mr Obama has endured a lot of cursing along the way. Commentators are almost universal in mocking his abrupt policy swerves over the last few weeks.

Three viewpoints

It seems to me that three voices war in the US president's head. And his almost public agonising is his attempt to reconcile them.

First, there is his imperative to reduce America's visible footprint in the world and avoid foreign wars.

It is one reason he was elected, to end the wars and concentrate on the homefront. He doesn't want his country to look like the world's bully.

Hassan Rouhani told NBC that Iran would never build nuclear weapons

Then there is his duty to protect national security. But uncomfortably alongside both of these there is a desire to protect the unprotected and be on the side of liberation and justice.

And there are other voices from outside, calling for the United States to lead the world, and act when others won't.

As Mr Obama has observed, many people don't like it when America does impose its will on the world, and are equally dismayed when it doesn't.

His resolution of this paradox seems to be to threaten the use of military action, but go to some lengths to avoid using it, or taking a back seat as in Libya.

But this is not without consequences. Mr Obama will doubtless emphasis his oft-stated view this week that only the firm threat of threat of military force has brought Syria to the negotiating table.

Difficult precedent

It is less clear if military action is really still an option.

My guess is that it won't be authorised in any UN resolution. There will be something vague about it still being a possibility.

But consider this: public opinion in the US and UK was against taking action against Syria. The British Parliament voted against it. Congress was all set to do the same.

What was proposed was a limited strike against a bloody regime accused of massacring its own people and committing a war crime.

Then ask how much enthusiasm would there be to attack a country for apparently trying to build a nuclear weapon, although it says it isn't.

If Syria used chemical weapons again or stormed out of talks that might be one thing. But what if it drags its feet, and says it will take three months to hand over weapons, rather than two weeks, and gives inspectors the run around? Could that be a casus belli?

It is true neither David Cameron nor Mr Obama have to win a vote - but they have set a precedent that would be difficult to ignore.

So they will give peace a chance.

A senior official mused dryly that Obama's policymaking was a "complicated way of making a sausage".

"But it might be quite a good sausage in the end."

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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Obama lost the plot with his Drone program and NSA spying
    More power to the ACLU and Tea Party Congress for blocking him
    More power to Snowden's revelations and Foreign Governments actions against US War and Spying Business

    If America is monitoring senders of communications not its contents why would they want to hack encrypted email. They lie

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Probably not.
    If it had not been for Putin throwing him a bone...he would have lost face or pushed the button. Plus, we have not heard the end of that deal. Putin is old school KGB, there are wheels within wheels here. We do not know the real price that Obama (and America) will have to pay. But it will soon be time to pay the "fiddler"

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    19. He already did. I could have sworn I saw this the other day but even if not it is here now:

    And as for the USDA I'm not sure he has authority there anymore than he would for medical research companies outsourcing to (example) China. If you want to go there though the FDA has a lot to answer to, too (or maybe not given supposed limited powers).

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    "Whole lotta talk and not much action" grouses a comment below. Good. Goood. Over the last years the concept has grown that acting is better than talking. Wrong. We need more talk and much less war, less-warmongering, less self-righteous tub-thumping and especially, the mother of all evils, less arms sales. Want peace, stop weapons. How difficult is this to understand?

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    ‘The Bush Doctrine’ or Hollywood Doctrine; only Goodies and Baddies exist, those with the biggest gun are judge, jury and executioner. The world is more complex, p*ed off people become your enemy, size of gun doesn’t matter. An endless cycle of violence. The only way to stop violence is to try and understand why people are doing it. You have to be clever, (Bush 0), least Obama is thinking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    USDA recently approved American chicken to be processed in China with Chinese chemicals then be shipped back to USA in which it does not have to be labeled as Chinese

    If Obama can't solve the problem of America's food problems w/ USDA not requiring food of origin for processed food
    I doubt he can solve the Iranian dilemma

    Too bad Obama doesn't care more about USA's food supply and health

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Among the principal reasons why Obama appears to be so uncertain regarding the way forward in Syria, Iran and the Middle East in general is because there is no real precedent for what he is attempting to do; certainly not in our modern world. It's obvious that Obama has a goal, disarming a despot without the direct use of force, and the means to achieve that goal is not, as yet, well defined.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I know if I had been at the mall and not able to escape,
    I wouldn't have made it as I know nothing from the Koran
    and the killers let Muslims go after testing them on Koran verses

    I don't think any Americans were killed but we were wounded
    and some of our allies were killed and wounded there

    Although everyone will be focused on Iran,
    I hope people remember what happened in Kenya, too

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I do wonder if Obama is going to say anything at UN about Kenya mall shooting

    After all that is where his father is from

    A tragedy what happened but who will help Africa from the Islamic extremists?

    USA and many of our allies are broke

    China and its allies just care about resources

    So not sure if Obama will address what happened in Kenya at UN or not

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The simple answer is No! he hasn't so far so why should he start now.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Obama is not really known for solving problems in USA
    so I don't think he's going to be able to solve foreign ones, either

    Nothing wrong with talking to the Iranian President
    but even though he is less extreme than the last one
    you still can't trust Iran's intentions
    because of their religious beliefs which has been this way for long time

    I predict a whole lotta talk
    but not much action

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    US foreign policy: Mujahedeen support in Afghanistan created the Taliban; occupation of Saudi Arabia created al Qaeda; and, support of Israel's jingoism created Hamas and Hezbollah. Now John McCain wants to do a 'Charlie Wilson' in Syria: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Cyclone

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    There will always be those who resort to violence, but after watching the pathetic attempt at the people taking power in Egypt, I can't help but think that America would we better off concentrating more on communicating our ideology and less on our prodigious capacity for destruction.

    Egypt would be better off today if we had provided it grade school civics classes instead of Abrams tanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    "There never Was a Good War or a Bad Peace” said Ben Franklin.
    Well, no doubt some one will take issue.But with Iraq & Afghanistan costing so many American lives with over 6 trillion$ spent,there has to be a better way of getting from A to B.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Bullshit - Rouhani is a good guy. Iraq's real leadership - the Mullahs - have accepted his election to hedge their bets in the light of the uncertainty over Syria's future. This is no vindication of Obama's schoolboy errors in jumping to unreasoned action in Syria based upon moral indignation and a a misreading of international sentiment. Rouhani is a chink of light. We need to look after him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    ...and what did the 'Bush Doctrine' ever get us other than years of war we couldn't afford, death by the hundreds of thousands and a financial crisis that brought the West to its knees. Funny how people are so critical of the man who actually caught Bin Laden.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Some challenges we've seen before... From the hard scrabble want of Dickensian/Victorian London, when so many had so little left, Marx observed:

    "Religious suffering... the expression of real suffering, protest against real suffering... Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opiate of the people."

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    "President Barack Obama's foreign policy has looked sometimes incoherent, sometimes less than robust..."

    Or perhaps that's what a thoughtful, deliberate and careful foreign policy looks like in the real world, where "shock and awe" isn't taken as the solution to every problem?

    I for one am pleased that the President is listening to those voices. All of them. It makes for a nice change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The USA tried war: in Iraq, in Afghanistan and lots of other places.

    And it failed.

    If Obama also "fails" - but without the use of body bags - isn't that better?

    And if he succeeds - without the use of body bags - isn't that MUCH better?


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